Theophany: The Cosmic Significance of Christ's Baptism


For centuries, the Orthodox Church has appropriated January 6th as the occasion to remember and commemorate the baptism of Christ by John in the Jordan River. The celebration is known as "Theophany," which stems from the Ancient Greek term for the "appearance of a god." In passages such as Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, and Luke 3:21-22, Jesus' baptism marks the first explicit manifestation of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For the early church, it was highly significant that such a divine manifestation was associated with the rite of baptism, for such an association linked together the true nature of the Creator with the true nature of creation. In other words, the revelation of God as Trinity was inextricably linked with the revelation of God as Creator and Redeemer of the cosmos.

Kilian McDonnell’s study on the cosmic dimensions of Jesus’ own baptism in early Christian thought observes that it was virtually the unanimous witness of these early authors that Christ was baptized not for his own sins but for the purification of the cosmos.[1] Ignatius of Antioch, who was a student of the Apostle John, wrote that Jesus was baptized in order to sanctify the waters of the world and thereby fulfill all righteousness (Eph. 18:2; Smyrn. 1:1). Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) argued that the anointing of the Spirit on Jesus served to establish Jesus’ identity as messianic king and thus the incarnation of the primordial Logos through whom all things were made (Dial. 88). Irenaeus’ Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching understands Jesus’ baptism as the intermediary by which the Father anoints the material cosmos with the Spirit, an act that revealed in time and space the pre-temporal anointing of Christ by the Father before creation.[2]

The site of the Jordan River amplified the cosmic significance of Christ's baptism. In such Jewish extra-canonical texts such as the Life of Adam and Eve, the Jordan River was the river that flowed in the Garden of Eden. Christians picked up this tradition and applied it to the baptism of Christ. Hippolytus of Rome (170-235 AD) associated the Jordan as a cosmic river flowing back and forth into the Paradise restored in Christ, and Gregory of Nyssa (335-394 AD) envisioned all baptismal waters as cosmic extensions of the Jordan, encompassing the whole world, with its source in Paradise.

The iconography of Theophany testifies to the paradisical significance of the Jordan. In the Jewish text, the Life of Adam and Eve, Adam, having been expelled from Paradise, stands neck-deep in the Jordan for forty days as an act of repentance for his sin. In the icon, Christ stands in the Jordan either naked or with scant clothing, thus restoratively identifying himself with the original nakedness of Adam in Paradise.

For these early Christians, the sanctifying effect Jesus had on the waters of the river Jordan renders worthy all water for baptism, such that baptized Christians are in fact participating in a proleptic manifestation of the new creation. Clement of Alexandria, after declaring Christ as head of all creation, wrote: “For this reason the Savior was baptized, though he had no need of it, in order to sanctify all the waters for those who would be regenerated” (A Selection from Prophetic Writings, 4, 5).[3] The Armenian Teaching of St. Gregory provides a particularly insightful appropriation of Christ’s baptism for the Christian. It is the role of the Spirit to order the cosmos, to change disorder into order. When Adam sinned, the Spirit abandoned not only Adam but the whole cosmos. Christ’s baptism, “by treading the waters with his own footstep, … sanctified them and made them purifying.” The restoration of the creation thus involves “the glory of adoption,” wherein the baptism of Jesus restores the Spirit to a new humanity indwelling a renewed created order. The initiate’s identity is derivative of Jesus’ identity as both are forged at the rejuvenation of creation.

Theophany is therefore a feast day that celebrates the fact that the totality of the cosmos has been incorporated into the transformative life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The Triune Creator is redeeming both creature and creation in his own self-manifestation as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Theophany is thus a commemoration of the One through whom all things are made, and in whom all things are made new.


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[1] The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: The Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Salvation (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1996), 24.

[2] McDonnell, Baptism of Jesus, 58.

[3] McDonnell, Baptism of Jesus, 55.